What is El Camino de Santiago and the Way of St James?

Read about Compostela, Concha Scallop Shell, Waymarker symbol, St James Cross Cruz and Tau jewellery souvenirs

After more than 10 years in Spain, we have learnt a lot about the history of El Camino de Santiago / The Way of St James and about the Camino symbols and their meanings.

The Camino walk, El Camino (or the Way of St James) is one of the greatest walks in the world.

Walking el Camino

Primarily though, Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across Spain to the famous Gothic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where it is believed that Saint James (one of Jesus’s apostles) is buried. It has its roots in the 9th Century AD when a shepherd found James’s remains in what is now Compostela and the local Bishop ordered a church to be built on the site. At one time, it was second only to Rome and Jerusalem for Christian travellers.

Via our online shop, people are able to gift some traditional  jewellery of Santiago de Compestela from our Good Luck Gift Shop online  DIRECTLY to a fan of the Camino.

camino de santiago cross necklace
Camino de Santiago cross necklace

Historically pilgrims would have made the long walk to Santiago de Compostela for religious reasons and they could earn a “plenary indulgence” or freeing of the soul’s sins. They would also (as today) receive what is called a Compostela certificate. This “Compostela” is a certificate of completion of the Camino de Santiago and is issued by the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela. If asked, the office will issue the Compostela in Latin, for pilgrims who declare that they did the Camino for religious or spiritual purposes. The Cathedral authorities have said that they are prepared to issue a Compostela to pilgrims who have not walked the required distance in Spain, so long as they can provide evidence of a walk of at least 25 to 30km prior to starting El Camino ‘proper’. But only ‘recognised’ religious routes count. As regards pilgrims travelling from the UK, for example, only the Pilgrims Way (Winchester or London to Canterbury), the Way of St Andrews in Scotland, and the St Michael’s Way in Cornwall, have pilgrim passports and stamps which would provide proof for the Pilgrim Office in Santiago.

Why is the Camino de Santiago important nowadays?

Although El Camino used to be one of three main Christian pilgrimage routes in Medieval times, this “Way of Saint James” (and in French: Chemin de St. Jacques, and German: Jakobsweg) seems to have captured the imagination of a new generation of people who are perhaps looking for a bit more from life. In our modern, more secular society, the walk (some travellers cycle, but over 90% travel by foot) is more often than not seen as an “experience”, or a challenge . . a way to get fit, perhaps, even a walking holiday. Of course, there are still thousands of people who have Christian or spiritual reasons to make the journey but more and more “pilgrims” choose to do the Camino for personal, rather than any spiritual or religious reasons – taking time out from their busy/modern lives whilst reflecting on their life in a supporting environment.

Jakobsweg Camino de Santiago route
Jakobsweg – Camino de Santiago route

Surprisingly however, although everyone experiences the Camino in a different way, many report finding some sort of inspiration along the route, whether through meeting people and making new friends, or simply because of the somewhat esoteric atmosphere they seem to experience along the way, whether crossing the vast open plains of northern Spain (on the most common route – El Camino Frances) or the adventures they encounter in some of the small pueblos (villages) and little chapels that are dotted along the route.

You can gift Camino jewellery to help bring good fortune to a friend or loved-one and wish them safe travels by sending direct from our Camino shop online

Why Saint James? Who was St. James?

Two of Jesus’s twelve disciples were named James, and one of these, James the Greater, whose younger brother was John the Apostle, was an original disciple and a very close associate, possibly a cousin, of Jesus. He worked as a fisherman alongside Peter. James was present at the transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane. A mixture of history and legend says that James travelled to the Spanish Iberian peninsula in the early day’s of Christ’s ministry – to preach the Christian Gospel and that, in AD 40 Jesus’s mother, the Virgin Mary appeared to James in a vision on the banks of the Ebro River while he was passing through Caesaraugusta (present day Zaragoza, in Spain). She told him to return to Judea, in the Holy Land, which he did. But, whilst there, in AD44, he was arrested for promoting Christianity (which had been banned by the Romans) and subsequently beheaded under the orders of King Herod Agrippa I. Because James was denied burial after his execution due to his crime of faith, his followers took his remains to Jaffa, where they boarded a ship to take the body back to Galicia.

Camino walk in Bierzo

It wasn’t until the 9th Century however, that his relics were discovered by a hermit named Pelagius who, after observing strange lights in a local forest, went to Theodemar, the local Bishop of Iria Flavia for help. Theodemar was then guided to the spot by a star, thus establishing the “Compostela” – as the “Field of Stars” (Campus Stellae in Latin) . . and hence Santiago de Compostela.

Why did pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago, and why do they do it today?

After the discovery of what was believed to be the remains of St James, word spread quickly throughout the Christian world and so Santiago de Compestela became a pan-European place of peregrination, second only to Rome and Jerusalem for Christian travellers. Pilgrims started journeying from all over Europe taking various different routes: “El Camino” is actually a network of pilgrims’ ways or pilgrimages leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

Buy Camino shell jewelry in shop online
Buy Camino shell jewelry in our shop online

These days, the Way of St James has found new intrigue and its popularity has grown enormously. Many travellers and pilgrims follow its route for spiritual reasons relating to their Christian faith. But more and more commonly, there is a more secular element, and people walk, hike, bike or even ride (on horseback or donkey) the Camino de Santiago to take time out from their busy lives and to find inspiration – improving their outlook on life, bringing them into closer contact with nature and expanding their cultural horizons through contact with other travellers. Everyone experiences the journey in their own way.

How many routes are there for the Camino de Santiago?

There are several recognised “Caminos”: El Camino Primitivo, or the Original Way, is the oldest route to Santiago de Compostela, first taken in the 9th century and which begins in Oviedo. The Camino Frances, which is the most usual route, starts in France at St Jean Pied de Port and is almost 500 miles long. Others are: La Via de la Plata, the longest Camino up from the south; El Camino del Norte along the coast of the Bay of Biscay; El Camino Portugués; and El Camino Inglés, the shortest but most traditional Camino for those travelling from the UK and Ireland. This “English Way” or “Seafaring Way” started in Medieval Ages with traders from Northern Europe, such as the English, Scottish, Irish and Scandinavians, who came to Spain to buy and sell goods. Because of the strategic ports of Ferrol and A Coruña in Galicia, this route opened up to become a major gateway for other travellers and pilgrims from the north.

camino de santiago england to spain

How long does it take to walk the Camino de Santiago, and what is the best time of year?

If you were to walk the most popular route, El Camino Frances, day after day, it would probably take around 35 days to complete the journey into Santiago de Compostela. April, May, June and September are probably the best months to walk any of the Caminos to Santiago. The weather is generally warm (or even quite hot) and all the hostels, auberges, bars, etc, are open. In the summer months it can get very busy.

See examples of:

–  Camino de Santiago jewellery  and other

–  Miscellaneous Camino de Santiago gifts  in our shop.

Buen Camino on the Way

¡Buen Camino! or ¡Ultreia! the call on the Way to Santiago de Compostela

In days gone by, the greeting amongst fellow pilgrims was “Ultreia, suseia, Santiago” (which meant: “Go ahead, beyond Santiago”). When one pilgrim greeted another by saying “Ultreia” (“keep going”) the other responded with “Et suseia!” (“and beyond!”). Nowadays, it is more common to hear simply: “buen Camino”, although the simple Ultreia seems to be coming back into fashion.

Hope companionship support on Camino

What are the symbols of the Camino de Santiago?

For many, the Cross of Saint James (La Cruz de Santiago) is the best symbol of this journey . . this Camino. Not only is he inexorably linked to Santiago (Sant Iago means Saint James in old Spanish) but St. James is also the Patron Saint of all Spain and, according to Don Quixote in Cervantes’ book: “St. James has been given by God to Spain for its protection”

The other main symbol is the Scallop Shell.

What does the shell mean on the Camino de Santiago, and why do pilgrims wear a shell?

When the relics of St James were originally unearthed, they were said to be covered in scallop shells – a mollusc native to the rough Atlantic coast around Galicia: Hence the association. Pilgrims returned to their countries of origin wearing the scallop concha shell over their habit or hat, as a souvenir (or ‘recuerdo’) to demonstrate (as a sort of proof) that they had reached Santiago. So Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to St James’ shrine often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes and carried a real a scallop shell so that, when they presented themselves at churches, castles, abbeys and so on to ask for board and lodging, they hoped to be given as much sustenance as they could pick up with one scoop of the shell. Probably they would have been given measures of oats and barley, and perhaps some beer or wine. Scallop shell jewellery makes a great gift to wish good luck travelling, or to help achieve goals. See some Camino gift ideas in the online shop on our website (eg: Camino jewellery for Christmas).

What is the Camino de Santiago cross?

The scallop shell became a symbol of “the Way” and many travellers took to it as a means of protection (a bit like a modern-day protective charm). In fact, during the period of the Crusades (a series of Christian expeditionary wars against the Moorish invaders of Spain and beyond), the scallop shell was used as a symbol of protection . . alongside another symbol: La Cruz de Santiago – the Saint James Cross: When placed in red on a white background, the Cross of St James is the most popular Christian cross of all time and also a symbol of God’s protection. The white colour is said to represent purity and the red colour symbolises the blood of Christ. So this “Camino de Santiago” cross was used during the Middle Ages, by the Crusaders, and the Knights Templar who would thrust it into the ground and then kneel before it to pray.

This St James cross or Cruz de Santiago (de Compostela) is a symbol of Christian faith and inspiration that can be traced back to the 12th Century (and some say even earlier). Millions of people wear St James Cross jewelry hoping that it will promote strength, courage and hope. But likewise, scallop shell jewellery is worn as a symbol of faith and achievement. Symbolically, the scallop shell is believed to signify the rebirth of a person, their resurrection, and the overcoming of ego (selfishness and egocentricity) to make way for a more simple and humble self, supposedly one of the great lessons of the pilgrimage of life (and el Camino). Camino cross jewellery of St James makes a great gift for a Christian festival like Christening / Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation or even Christmas, and to wish good luck travelling, or retiring or for someone going to hospital for an operation perhaps, to say Get Well soon. (Or simply for a Camino fan.)

Some 250,000 people travel the Camino each year from all over the world and many write blogs and even books about their adventure. Many carry with them a symbol of El Camino – a Scallop Shell or St James Cross.

Camino symbols
Principal Joyas del Camino symbols

So, there are two principle symbols of El Camino de Santiago:

The Scallop Shell

As mentioned, La Concha / Scallop Shell (in French this scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques, and in German Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels)) used to be used by pilgrims to obtain sustenance such as oats or barley from this fertile agricultural region, as they walked their Camino. They would use the shell to scoop up a measure of food. And, when they arrived in Santiago de Compostela, they were given a scroll that confirmed them as pilgrims – a “Compostela” which featured the shell symbol. They could take this ‘Vieira’ symbol back home as a badge of achievement.

Nowadays, the scallop shell has become a symbol of pilgrimage in general – a mark of achievement, as well as a souvenir of a great journey. For this reason, it is often gifted to pass on blessings to someone travelling (moving abroad, for example, or even moving house). It can say “Have a good trip” , “Safe Journey” and so on. It also makes a lovely Christening or Communion gift – or for another Christian festival like Christmas or Easter.

Scallop shell symbol cufflinks

So, the use of the scallop shell as a means to gift protection (or as a protective charm, and to wish safekeeping along the way) to travellers, dates back many years. This concha scallop shell symbol features extensively on Camino de Santiago gifts and souvenirs.

The Cross of St. James

The Saint James cross (Cruz de Santiago is a distinct-shaped cross which combines a cross fitchy (the lower limb is pointed because it was originally intended to be driven into the ground) with a cross fleury (fleurs-de-lys) at the ends of the arms. Over time, this cross has become an icon of Galicia: St James is not only the Patron Saint of Galicia, he is also the Patron Saint of all of Spain. It should also be noted that the St. James Cross, when featued red on a white background, is also the most popular Christian cross of all time – a symbol of God’s protection. Once again, the Saint James Cross is prominent on Camino de Santiago souvenirs and gifts:

St James cross symbol
Classic Camino de Santiago jewellery

Other symbols of the Camino de Santiago

The third symbol is called the WayMarker. This is a diagrammatic form of the Scallop Shell that is located along the Camino de Santiago route to guide walkers / bikers as to the correct route – and is another Camino de Santiago symbol that features extensively on Camino gifts and souvenirs and in the Camino de Santiago stores:

Waymarker scallop shell sign

A fourth symbol is the Tau Cross which, although related to St Francis of Assisi in Italy, it is also known as the Cross of Pilgrims (Cruz del Peregrinos in Spanish). Indeed, you will find a lot of jewellery in Galicia (and in our online shop) featuring the Tau Cross as well as the Scallop Shell and, of course, the Cross of St James.

Tau cross St Francis symbol necklace
Faith jewellery

These symbols of El Camino when featured on jewellery and other items also make popular souvenirs and mementos of a journey.

Please see our   SHOP   for St James Crosses and Scallop Shell Conchas on jewellery and as souvenirs of a journey – especially pendant necklaces, bracelets and earrings, cufflinks and rings which we ship all over the world as gifts for Camino walkers and other travellers. Our Camino de Santiago jewellery ( Joyas del Camino de Santiago ) in particular is exceptional for its quality – much of it being hand-crafted by notable and renowned goldsmiths in Galicia and Asturias.

Way to Santiago waymarker

We are friends of the Camino – Amigos del Camino, and so most of our Camino jewellery is handcrafted by local goldsmiths in Galicia and Asturias. Every piece of Camino jewellery we ship is gift-wrapped and includes an information card about the Way of Saint James / El Camino de Santiago, and the significance of the Scallop shell and the Cross of St James . . ideal for a fan of El Camino.

Discover El Camino de Santiago / The Way of St James symbols, jewellery, souvenirs and other Camino gifts we sell in our shop online